Saturday Night Live is simultaneously blessed and cursed by its history: When the show was good, it was good enough to build up positive feelings that stick with it today, but every current character, sketch, and joke is measured by the ones that preceded it. And there's a lot of "before" for comparison. On the air since 1975, and still mostly holding to its initial formula, SNL is often criticized as "comedy by numbers," when it isn't being praised for becoming "relevant" again. That seesaw of expectation leads to every new season being called either the worst ever, or the best in a long time.
But if nothing else, SNL is still a thriving school for comic actors. The list of brilliant comedians who started out as SNL cast members stretches back from Bill Murray through Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell, and to current players like Will Forte and Rachel Dratch. (Of course, the list of not-so-accomplished comedians goes back pretty far too, but that's another story.)
The four newcomers of SNL's 2005-6 season—Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristen Wiig —have begun to make their mark on the show, as well as stake their claim on its future: Hader is a master of impersonation, while Sudeikis, an SNL writer for two years, has proven to be a solid player. Wiig already has a recurring character (The Target Lady) under her belt, while Andy Samberg, of Lonely Island fame, has ensured SNL will be running digital shorts until 2008 at least.
On a recent Monday, The A.V. Club stopped by 30 Rockefeller's 17th floor to talk to SNL's four newest cast members about their (tiny) offices, their work week, and their fears of typecasting, recurring characters, and auditions.
The A.V. Club: How did you two end up in an office together?
Jason Sudeikis: They just put us here.
Bill Hader: They go by height.
JS: I have a different office every year. So this is my third office. I like this one because it's close to the action.
AVC: You mean that room with the big table?
BH: Yeah. And it was also reportedly Al Franken and Tom Davis' office, right?
JS: It was? I know it was James Anderson and Kenan Thompson's office.
BH: Oh, well, that's even more impressive.
Andy Samberg: A lot to live up to.
AVC: So you've never been in an office you wanted to stay in?
JS: No, every person I've ever been in an office with has been let go, so…
Or they've left on their own accord. They haven't necessarily all been let go.
BH: Yeah… That sounds more like it. [Laughs.]
JS: So it wasn't my choosing, but I couldn't be happier. I think that goes for both of us.
BH: I couldn't be happier either. We found out we have a lot in common.
And we don't have to look at each other, because we're back to back when we're working.
AVC: So what are you all doing today? Today is…
JS: Pitch meeting. Where you meet whoever's hosting. The writers go through a topical meeting, where they talk about all the things that have happened in the past three weeks and things that are going to be happening during the week—predicting the future to a certain degree. And then deciding what they want to write about, and who's going to write what, and things like that. Then we go meet with Natalie Portman.
BH: And this happens. [Everyone starts clapping.]
JS: We clap. And everyone gives her a couple ideas about what they may or may not write, and then we eat free food. And then either you stick around, or you go do…
BH: You stick around, generally try to write something,
AS: Get a jump on the week.
BH: That's a really great feeling when you come in on Tuesday, and you're like, "I have a piece underneath my belt." It lays off the pressure.
AS: You're talking about a gun, right?
BH: Yes. I come to work with a gun.
AS: Under your belt?
Kristen Wiig: You can't print that.
BH: I mean, I've got a license for it. I use it for an intimidation tool. It's not loaded. "Oh really? You don't like that sketch?"
AS: "Well, I've got a piece underneath my belt."
BH: I'm just putting my guns on the table, I'm just saying.
KW: We're all required to bring some sort of weapon.
JS: I wear shoe lifts.
AS: Totally unnecessarily, too.
JS: I'm fairly tall, but it's like another quarter inch.
AVC: It gives you an edge?
BH: Not with most hosts, but with Lance Armstrong, it gives you an edge.
AVC: And with Natalie Portman.
JS: Yeah, but her bone structure totally outweighs my lifts.
AVC: So what was everyone's first pitch, whether or not it made it to air?
KW: I can't remember. My first show was with Jason Lee, and I honestly can't remember what I pitched for him. I know I had written it down, though. I was terrified.
BH: I think I pitched a Bobby Flay thing for Steve Carell, him playing Bobby Flay and getting executed, or something.
JS: A couple of years ago, when I was just a writer, I pitched to Jack Black an idea about him being a college-kid folk singer who tries to sing "Cat's In The Cradle" to his dad, but his dad keeps interrupting him. And it did make it. But that is the only one. First show, first thing. I was very nervous.
BH: So your first pitch, you then wrote, and it got on the show. God, that doesn't happen a lot.
AVC: How much of the pitch meeting makes it to air?
JS: I would say 15 percent of what is pitched in that room probably actually gets on the show, much less even written. Sometimes it will be a variation on it. Sometimes people pitch whatever, just sort of to protect the piece or the joke or the notion. It's a lot less interesting than the Saturday show, which is probably why they don't televise it.
AVC: And things can get knocked out at any point?
KW: At any point.
BH: You might even have something in the show, but after Update, basically it's kinda like a free-for-all. If you had something, it could be pulled at the last minute because of time.
AVC: Do people ever fight about that kind of stuff?
JS: If you have something so funny that you're willing to fight your co-workers or your friends over, then it's probably going to get in, because everyone agrees.
If one person is sticking up for their piece… I don't know if anyone really ever sticks up for their piece that much, to the point that it would be off-putting.
BH: Well, it's also out of your control. It doesn't matter.
JS: It's no easier to find out when it happens. You could be dressed up in your lederhosen or whatever, and they're like "Oh, that sketch has been cut."
BH: You're always in like a really intricate costume. And then it gets pulled.
AVC: Has that happened to all of you?
KW: It happened to me. I wasn't in a crazy costume. I don't think I was dressed, actually. It was one of those things when it was the sketch after the sketch that was on, and no one really knew if it would be in or not. So it was like "What's going on? Should I change?" and then I was told we ran out of time.
AVC: So how did everyone get on the show?
JS: I would love to hear this.
KW: Maybe I'll start, because mine is the quickest and the most boring: My manager sent my tape in, and I auditioned twice, and then got a call on Wednesday to be here Friday. So, fast packing. It's not an exciting story.
AS: Say there's a dragon or something. "My manager sent in a tape, then I flew in on a dragon. I got off the dragon and was like, 'After that, I can handle anything.' Then I knocked out the audition."
BH: Yeah, when you show up to an audition on the back of a dragon, you've got it.
AS: Well, [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] doesn't like dragons.
KW: [Head writer] Tina [Fey] does.
JS: He likes some dragons, that's the weird thing
AS: Dana Carvey came in on a dragon.
BH: Dana Carvey came in on a dragon and still got it. So it just goes to show you. You show up and you perform, that's all that really matters.
AS: Me and my two friends, Akiva [Schaffer] and Jorma [Taccone], we were writing on the MTV Movie Awards last year, and Jimmy Fallon was the host. We were friendly with him, and I guess he liked us and recommended that they check us out for the show. They invited us to audition and send a writing packet. Then I auditioned, and they asked me to come back and do it again. And then I barfed the night before my callback.
AVC: Out of nervousness?
AS: It was nervousness. Then I came out into the lobby the next morning, and Jorma was there, because he was also going to audition. And I was like, "Dude, I threw up last night." And he was like "Really? I just threw up!" and I was like "Oh my God!" and we hugged about it. It was the happiest I've ever been, hearing about someone else throwing up. That adds a little color to my story.
KW: Well, my dragon vomited. Go, Bill.
BH: I was in a sketch group in L.A., and we were playing, like, backyards in Glendale and stuff. It was pretty ugly, because we didn't have any money. One of the guys in the group, his sister-in-law is Megan Mullally, so she came to one of the shows and was like, "Hey, you're good." So she told Lorne about me, and I came out and met Lorne last January, and then we did a show for him. And he flew us out to New York and we did a show for, like, everybody: the whole SNL cast, writers, producers—which was the most nerve-wracking thing ever.
AVC: Did you barf?
BH: I did not barf. It actually turned out pretty good. But the morning of my audition, my manager called and was like, "You have a political impression, right?" And I was like "No." And she was like "You have to have a political impression." So that morning, I was just flipping through channels and I found Tony Blair. I watched Tony Blair for, like, two hours and figured it out, and then went to the audition.
AS: Yeah, I had a similar thing. When I was going to my callback, the guy was like, "Just do the same stuff, but maybe trim a little. They just want to see you again." I was like "Really? Because I feel like it won't be funny again." And they were like "No, that's fine. Just do the same stuff." And then two days before the callback, I got a call from my manager: "They want to see all-new stuff." So I wrote a whole new audition in two days.
AVC: Jason, what about you?
JS: I had my manager send in tape of a show I was doing in Las Vegas for Second City. Then I auditioned in the beginning of September of 2003. I was hired as a writer from that audition. In September of 2004, I auditioned to be on air again, and did not get it, so I stayed as a writer. Then I tested for Weekend Update and did not get that. About 17 episodes went by, and then a Friday before a show last season, Lorne called and asked if I wanted to be in the cast, and I told him I'd get back to him. [Laughs.]
BH: And I still haven't let him know.
JS: No, he asked if I wanted to, and I said "Yeah." He goes "All right." And that was the extent of it.
AVC: Does everybody have to have a political impression?
AS: No, I think they just want to see if you can. Bill does impressions, that's part of his thing.
BH: But they ask you, though. Did they not ask you guys?
AS: I mean, what political impression could I possibly do?
KW: I did Laura Bush.
JS: I don't know if there's any set rule. I did John Edwards and George Bush, but only because I could, not because they commanded it. I mean, I doubt Adam Sandler did a political impression.
AS: I heard he humped a chair for 10 minutes
JH: I remember when I was doing my audition, I was very concerned with keeping it five minutes, short, not because they wanted you to, but because I wanted something punchy. In and out. I could hear some of the other people, and some of the auditions were really long.
AS: Well, I watched Ferrell's audition off his best-of DVD. That helped me personally, because a) he went significantly over five minutes, and b) it gives you an idea of how little laughter there is in the room. You're watching Ferrell, and you're like, "This is fucking hilarious," and there's no real laughs. So it prepares you. No matter what you do, it's not going to be like killing at a stand-up club or an improv show. It's going to be going into a stale room, and feeling really awkward, and having to believe that what you're doing is really funny, beyond what the reaction is.
AVC: Did you all grow up watching SNL?
AVC: Who did you like growing up?
JS: I liked Eddie Murphy and Phil Hartman. The Dana Carvey/Phil Hartman/Jon Lovitz years were probably the years I watched it the most, as an impressionable youth. I just sort of stopped watching. I remember liking Adam Sandler a lot.
AS: I was big into the Sandler years. Actually, I never stopped watching.
JS: I stopped for like 10 years, from '92 to 2002.
AVC: Why'd you stop?
BH: You got your license?
JS: I got my driver's license. I figured out how to masturbate with a girl being present. They call it "sex." I was working on Saturdays, and it stopped being my favorite television. Same reason I don't watch 24 any more, I guess.
AVC: Why do you think you were hired? Do you think they hire you to fit a certain type they're looking for?
KW: For me, my second audition was all women, so I know they were looking for a girl. And I'm a girl. I don't really know, though.
JS: I don't know. I assume that those conversations go on behind closed doors, and we wouldn't be privy to them. I guess you can make sense of it if you want to, but at the end of the day, I think they probably just found us entertaining in some way. I think it's everybody else watching the show who tends to think in types. I worked at Second City before, and they always had that same theory, like "A big guy just left, so they're going to hire a big guy." But I don't think… things didn't always work out that way. It's just someone trying to make sense out of chaos.
KW: At the end of the day, you just want a good show.
AS: Yeah, you hope it's whoever made everyone laugh, in however way they did it. I don't know if it's by design or if it's coincidental, but I feel like all four of us kinda do a different thing from the rest. Which is nice, for sure.
JS: Big picture: you could just say "Well, there are four white people," or "They added three younger, skinny, white dudes with mop-heads." But if you get more specific into what they do with those elements, then it becomes very, very different. What at one point was very hard to discern will become very easy to distinguish as time goes on. It's one of those things that happens time and time again with the show. I don't think it's as compartmentalized or standardized as people may think.
BH: But it is cool, coming in with a group like this. It feels like a base. There's a really cool support system.
AS: There are stories other people have about just them being hired mid-season… It doesn't sound that fun. Although everyone here is so nice that I can't imagine anyone being that bad. It's just extra nice to have each other. [Laughs.]
JS: It's competitive, though. You know, it's an hour-and-a-half show that we have to share with Weekend Update and the host and two musical acts, so truly you're talking about 40 minutes of material, and yet eight hours of material is being generated every week. The reason it's competitive is because the show's not long enough, not because the people here are competitive. Everybody wants to do well and have their things be seen and get their thing on air, but it's not to the point where people are being unsupportive by any means, so that's good.
AVC: So no sabotage?
JS: I mean, nothing that we could directly talk about.
BH: Nothing we could say about in front of you
AS: It loses its power. If you're talking about pranks, though, well… [Maniacal laughter.]
KW: Jason does own a fart machine.
JS: It's rented. I rented it.
AS: Keep that receipt, by the way.
BH: That's a total write-off.
AVC: Do you ever read press about the show?
KW: I don't. If they send us something that's a general thing about the new people, I'll read that.
BH: Something actually in print, I'll read. But as far as Internet, like boards and junk, I don't read that.
AS: I'm weaning myself off of it, because I come from a lot of Internet stuff. I had a website with my friends, so we would always be checking out how much we were out there, but now it's to the point where the Internet is a place that can turn so fast.
KW: It can make you insecure.
AS: They can say such harsh things. There's no filter. And if you put stock in something good someone says about you on the Internet, then you also have to let it affect you when somebody says something bad. I'm trying to choose to not look at any of that, because it's not really helpful in any way. Better to just do what you think is good here, and let that be that.
AVC: So none of you have looked at your IMDB profiles?
BH: I looked at mine the Sunday after my very first show, because I had message things on it. I was like, "Oh cool, people are saying things," and then it registered, and I was like, "Oh, this is why I don't want to look at this." You don't want to get caught up in it.
AS: I looked at my IMDB page just to make sure I'm still on the show.
AVC: Is there pressure to create recurring characters or catchphrases?
BH: Not really.
AS: I think that they want it if it happens, but there's no one's going, "Think of a catchphrase." Just come up with something funny, and if they like it enough, and think it can go again, they ask you to do it.
AVC: Kristen, you have a recurring character. Are you ever afraid that you'll run it into the ground?
KW: Yeah. Or that what made the first one funny won't be funny the second time. Or I'm afraid that I'm doing the exact same thing. It's hard to write a second recurring character.
AS: There's also obviously some sort of internal mental stigma of being on the show. Because we all watch the show. You know that exists. Franchise the characters. It's part of the show.
JS: You can't predict it, though. I guarantee that if you watch that first "Wayne's World" sketch, you're not going to hear a lot of people laughing, and definitely not a lot of people in the background at the end of it saying, "Oh, do that again." Much less "Make a movie that makes $100 million and a sequel that makes a bunch of dough and a career!" So if you're aiming for that, you're aiming for the wrong thing.
AS: It never happens because you're trying to do that.
BH: If anything, things that have gotten on the show have been the Plan B of the night.
JS: It's back to the whole Monday pitch meeting. If you have an idea that you see through, soup to nuts, if you see it through the whole way from pitch to air… Some people work that way, I don't know, I certainly don't. I'm sure they would love it, but… We don't have meetings where they say "All right, everybody, let's hear your Irish accents. Who does the funniest one? All right, you're going to be Leprechaun Pete. Go write that." It's not McDonald-ized to that nature. Where it's cookie-cutter and all planned out.
BH: It's weird and mechanical, too, if you do it that way. I know it probably sounds silly to everybody, but I never am like, "I'm going to do this accent," or anything like that. I remember watching the show growing up, and it was different because it was like watching a show with a timeline. Like, "Oh, are they going to do Wayne's World this week?" It's more what makes you laugh. It's kind of that simple. Like when you're in high school, and your friends make you laugh in the cafeteria. It's that simple.
JS: I wish he would have said this just to me, because it would make a better story, but before my first audition, Chris Rock happened to show up to do some stand-up material at the club, and he went on right before me, and as he was walking out, he sorta tapped me on the shoulder and said, "They love original thought." If you just keep that in mind, as long as you know it's yours, you know that if they like it, it's yours to keep, regardless of being on the show or not.
BH: They would always rather you do what you like, rather than you do what you think they like.
AVC: Chris Rock wasn't being sarcastic in that story?
JS: No, not at all. It didn't really—I mean, there's a lot of people that've auditioned for this show that we've never seen on the show, that we've seen do a lot of things that are great, and there's a lot of people that have been on this show that didn't do much on this show that's the same. It's very—[Laughs.] Maybe he was being a smartass.
KW: You ruined it, you ruiner.